Culture Shock in Israel


Expats moving to Israel will experience culture shock

From the secular business hub-cum-seaside resort of Tel Aviv to the religiously significant and fought-over Jerusalem, as well as the many Arab villages, kibbutzim and moshavim in between, Israel contains a huge amount of diversity in one very small strip of land. Expats may experience varying degrees of culture shock in Israel, as Israeli culture reflects its population of Europeans, North and South Americans, as well as inhabitants from the Arab world, the former Soviet Union and various African countries. It is not uncommon to find a Russian supermarket next door to a Falafel stand, opposite an Irish pub and behind a spice shop.  
Israel is, on the whole, a place of informality, where the common attitude is for people to do what they want until somebody stops them. It is certainly highly fitting that the phrase chutzpah originates from Hebrew, as newcomers may be both shocked and affronted by the behaviour around them. Blatant flirting with strangers is standard, shouting at a customer is to be expected, understanding that ‘no’ means ‘no’ is rare and waiting in line is practically extinct. Conversely, the straightforwardness and directness of Israelis can be strangely refreshing, and there is something both exhilarating and satisfying about that tussle in the market over the ripest avocados.
Expats may have heard Israelis described as cacti, and this is indeed an apt description for both the people and their culture. On the surface, Israelis may often seem rude, pushy and inflexible, but expats will be frequently surprised by how willing people can be to break rules in their favour, and how helpful people can be in moments of crisis. However, bureaucracy is a key cause of frustration for many expats living in Israel, as the completion of the simplest of administrative processes can easily stretch into weeks or even months.

Dress in Israel

Unless expats are in areas such as Jerusalem’s old city, Tsfat or the West Bank, dress in Israel is similar to Europe and North America. Expats in Tel Aviv during summer will frequently see women in short dresses and men in nothing more than their swimming shorts. Expats should bear in mind that Jerusalem is considerably cooler than Tel Aviv in the evenings, so even in summer it is worth taking a sweater if they plan to stay out late. Those intending to travel in the winter months should take warm clothes, as temperatures can drop as low as 43°F (6°C).
In more religious or conservative areas, expats are advised to dress appropriately so as not to cause offense.  Women are expected to wear a long skirt or trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, whereas men should wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. Men also cover their heads in Jewish religious sites. Sandals are acceptable in religious sites for both men and women.
Business attire is usually informal, and a tie is rarely required.  

Alcohol in Israel 

Although not usually consumed in vast quantities, alcohol is a part of everyday life in Israel and is served in bars and cafes across the country. Perhaps an explanation for the less prominent presence of drunken youths in the streets compared with countries like the UK is the price; alcohol in Israel is expensive. Expats should expect to pay around ILS 25 for a half-litre bottle of beer and around ILS 30 for a glass of wine in Tel Aviv. It is cheaper to buy alcohol in the supermarket, but expats should bear in mind that shops are not permitted to sell alcohol after 11pm.

Women in Israel

Despite the many laws that have been passed to promote equality and rights for women, Israel often appears to be an essentially male chauvinist society. Women generally receive lots of attention from Israeli men, and foreigners are a favourite target. Expat women should not expect a day alone on the beach to be undisturbed – being polite and delicate will not get far: women who don’t want to be harassed must be firm, direct and as blunt as they dare. Expat women should bear in mind that whatever they say, it is highly unlikely to offend, as Israeli men have a virtually impenetrable ego. This said, Israel is a very safe place for women compared with many other destinations, and many women feel safe to walk alone at night in most areas.

Language in Israel

Speaking English or Russian can get an expat far in Israel, but neither really compensates for the benefits of speaking Hebrew. Many Israelis will often question why expats would want to learn Hebrew, assuring them that it’s unnecessary. Nevertheless, simple processes, such as ordering a credit card, sending a parcel or buying a bus pass, can quickly develop into a nightmare if both parties don’t speak the same language. Additionally, employers will almost always value expats more highly if they have a decent knowledge of Hebrew. Expats in Israel are strongly advised to sign up for a Hebrew course, as even a basic grasp of the language will save them many headaches.

Etiquette in Israel

  • Tipping: Restaurants and cafes will expect expats to tip between 10 and 12 percent, even if the service is not necessarily above par. The tip is not usually included in the bill (although it is always worth checking) and many bars, restaurants and cafes prefer the tip in cash. Overly zealous waiters have been known to chase people down the street if they did not leave a tip.
  • Driving: Driving in Israel is fast, aggressive and often downright dangerous. Expats planning on driving in Israel should prepare to be exceptionally patient and drive both safely and defensively. Pedestrians (and sometimes other cars) will often not pay much attention to whether their light is green or red.
  • Greetings: A handshake or kiss on the cheek are both common. Expats should expect to move to a first-name basis very quickly in a business context, and should always use their right hand if shaking hands with a Muslim.
  • Attitude towards time: Israeli attitude towards time tends to vary dramatically. Some Israelis are extremely punctual, whereas others run on ‘Middle Eastern time’ and will think nothing of being between 30 and 60 minutes late for a meeting. It is best to be punctual, especially in a business setting.
  • Gift-giving: It's common for people to exchange small gifts such as wine, flowers or chocolates in a business setting.

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Our Israel Expert

Abi Nurser's picture
Abi Nurser
Rugby, UK. Tel Aviv, Israel
Abi was born in Rugby, UK.  After completing her degree in English Literature and Spanish at Newcastle University, she... more

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